Sunday, April 18, 2010

You Don't Have to be a Giant to be Green

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend SAP Virtualization Week at the SAP Co-Innovation Labs in Palo Alto, California. The conference consisted of three tracks: Virtualization, Cloud Computing and Green IT. Lots of thought provoking material was presented by SAP, consulting partners and customers. When I attend these type of events I look hard to find a few practical take aways that could be put in place immediately. Of course these sessions help frame my thinking on long-term strategies around SAP virtualization and Data Center design, but what can I go home with and ask my team about next week? One of those take away points for me last week was this: You don’t have to be a giant to be green.

At surface level Green IT seems like a concept relative only to the largest of IT organizations. Organizations such as Intel and Colgate-Palmolive who can tell stories of collapsing 50 or 60 global data centers down to one facility certainly have a green story to tell. Organizations such as NetApp who have pioneered efficient data center designs can go to conferences to show how they received a million dollars in rebates from their energy provider. These are great stories, but as I sat through the first couple of these last week sipping Starbucks coffee I was thinking to myself “This is awesome, but what can I do, how is this relative to me?” How can a < $1 Billion enterprise who leverages a colocation service for data center space devise a green IT strategy? What about very small organizations who have all of their servers hosted at their own facility, all in one rack that sits in a locked (or sometimes not) closet that is doubling as storage and data center space? As the week went on I managed to pick up several practical action items that can be leveraged by smaller IT shops to build a green story. While in smaller IT shops the savings may not be as dramatic and jaw dropping as global IT operations, keep in mind all things are relative. If you can show where you started and demonstrate a thoughtful effort that created a tangible reduction in energy consumption and thus cost then you have executed a successful green IT strategy. It may not be enough to save the planet, but it is your part and shows that you are doing all you can to be a good steward of your organizations IT operations.

Know Where You Are

Your tangible achievements with Green IT thinking will be measured in percentage points. For example, a 10% reduction in power consumption, a 2% reduction in utility costs etc.. Obviously, to show these numbers you have to know what you are consuming today. Even if you have a single rack of servers sitting in a closet, do you know how much power they are consuming? Do you know how much you are paying monthly in energy costs to run the equipment you have? The answer to these types of questions becomes slightly more challenging for mid-sized IT shops leveraging colocation providers for data center space. Do you know exactly how many power circuits and what type (120/280V, 20A/30A) are provisioned to your space? Do you know the current draw on those circuits? In a colocation environment, a very practical first step is to install intelligent Rack Distribution Units (RDU’s). There are lots of vendors who offer these, see this one from APC as an example. Intelligent RDU’s will give you the data you need to establish your baseline. Most of these devices provide an HTTP interface that gives you basic statistics and reporting. You don’t need anything fancy, just a browser and a spreadsheet. Get a total average draw for all of your equipment over a length of time long enough to cover any major fluctuations that may occur in your computing environment.

How Redundant Do You Need To Be?

In a typical server deployment, redundancy is built into the design. We expect a certain degree of equipment failure so we account for that in our capacity planning and design efforts. So ask yourself this, how much redundancy is enough? This has a direct impact on green IT thinking. Most servers have redundant dual power supplies. Think of the environments you have with redundancy built in so that if you lose a single server you will have no downtime. Now ask, why do each of those servers have TWO power supplies plugged in to prevent it from failing in the event a power supply goes bad or you have a problem with an electrical circuit? Doesn’t your design accommodate for losing a server anyway? The real answer to this sort of question is that you plug in both power supplies on each and every server even in a redundant server arrangement because that is how you have always done it. Challenge the notion that this is necessary. You may find that with this simple thought process you cut out 50% of your power consumption in certain environments. Also, categorize your systems into different classes of criticality. This is a natural exercise for disaster recovery planning but is not often thought of when planning for power design. If an application running on a server can be down for a defined period of time with no serious impact to your business, maybe you don’t need to plug in both power supplies and provide redundancy at the power level. Again, challenge the assumption that just because a piece of gear has two power supplies that they MUST both be in use.

Buy Green

Pat of knowing where you are in terms of your level of green IT operations is knowing where your vendors and partners stand. Make energy efficiency a part of your purchasing decisions when it comes to IT equipment and service. As you are gathering quotes for hardware, ask your vendor to provide you with energy rating information for the equipment along with the price. With respect to service such as consulting, ask your provider what they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint and provide services in a green way. For example, how much of the work can be done remotely versus onsite? This not only has a practical implication from a green mindset, it also reduced T&E expense. If you leverage a collocation provider for data center space, insist that your provider be able to tell you the PUE of their facility. Remember, you are paying your provider their cost plus margin. If their operations are not ran efficiently then their costs will be higher and you will pay the price. Leverage the information you are gathering from your intelligent RDU’s to renegotiate the way you are buying power in your colocation space. For example, many colocation providers charge you “by the circuit” for power. Their price often includes their cost for delivering you the energy on that circuit plus their cost for removing the heat generated by the consumption of that energy. If you can tangibly show that you are only consuming a fraction of the energy provided over a circuit and thus generating less than a 1:1 ratio of heat to circuit capacity then you have a strong case to moving to a “pay by the drink” model for power. Your case here is that you should be paying in a manner that covers your providers OPEX, not their CAPEX. Your providers true operational cost to remove heat from the data center is a function of how much heat you actually generate plus how efficient they are at removing it.

These are just a few practical suggestions. All of these things can be done on a modest IT budget. The key is to understand where you are starting from, take tangible steps based on that knowledge and measure your change. Again, success is measured in percentage points, not raw numbers. As manager for a small or mid-sized IT shop, you won’t put up numbers the likes of what you will see from global, Fortune 500 IT shops. Success is demonstrating that you are aware of the need to be a good steward of your organizations IT operations relative to its environmental impact, measuring the results of your efforts and arming your organization with your numbers to add to its overall sustainability efforts. Oh yea, you will likely save money too.

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